Air pollution has a significant public health burden, and the physiological effects from breathing polluted air are further elucidated through the near-constant stream of new studies revealing the alarming damage that occurs to almost every organ in the body.
Asthma is one of the many health conditions which can be triggered or caused – at least in part – by exposure to air pollution. Asthma is the most common long-term medical condition affecting children and young people, with one in 11 (three in every classroom) affected, and it disproportionately affects deprived communities. In Camden in 2019/20 alone, 26 children were admitted to hospital on more than one occasion for asthma.
Although it is challenging, air pollution can be reduced by tackling pollution sources, while exposure can certainly be minimised by developing an awareness of the risks and the associations with conditions such as asthma. We can clearly see how local and national government and the health sector have extremely import and inextricably linked roles in protecting public health from the harm caused by exposure to air pollution.
Sadly, we have also seen the consequences of the UK’s long-term failure to achieve pollution limits and the lack of adequate awareness-raising for the population. These are revealed in CYP asthma rates, in the mortality estimates (which attribute as many as 36,000 deaths each year in the UK to long-term exposure to air pollution), and in the tragic stories of personal loss.
On the one hand, the advice from local authorities on avoiding pollution exposure is not reaching the people who need it most, and on the other hand many medical professionals are missing an opportunity to provide simple and effective recommendations for their patients to help make the link between air quality and respiratory or cardiovascular health.
Partnership working holds the key to unlock this conundrum. Linking local authority air quality officers with NHS partners can reveal innumerable opportunities for effective and efficient cross-promotion of vital resources and key information.
Over the past two years Camden’s Air Quality Team has worked much more closely with other partners in the North London Partnership and the Healthy London Partnership. This has enabled us to improve the relevance of the Council’s own air quality messaging by ensuring that we relate our advice back to health outcomes and that we utilise every available opportunity to promote the excellent resources produced by partner organisations, many of which would otherwise have remained unbeknown to us.
At the same time, our involvement with NLP and HLP has afforded opportunities for us to reinforce to medical professionals and other partners the importance of air quality for health, and the steps which can be taken collectively and individually to reduce our exposure and contribution to air pollution.
Local authorities are often perceived as having an ulterior motive when we provide specific advice to encourage a change in behaviour, whether that’s avoiding burning wood or coal at home or green waste in our gardens, or minimising indoor air pollution by changing our cleaning products or methods of cooking.
We find that our key messages are likely to land with more impact and trust when they come from the NHS and affiliated organisations. The guidance of a GP who understands that air pollution might be a contributory factor in a patient’s asthma may make more of a difference than a local authority campaign which struggles to reach the people who are most vulnerable to air pollution.
We need to take every opportunity to tackle the air quality health crisis and protect the health of children and young people with asthma. It is crucial that we work collectively and with a shared vision for a future in which no one experiences ill-health as a result of the air they breathe.